25 May 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: Three Men in Black

Today we see the release of a few films, the biggest of which is Men in Black 3 (2012). I imagine, however, that years from now we'll be surely more interested in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which seems to capture some of the spirit from his earlier classics like Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). But our focus in these things are the loudest, trashiest attempts to jockey for a position as the Top Dog of Summer - so how does MIB3 stack up?

The original Men in Black (1997) was a phenomenon and has really stood atop the Sci-Fi Comedy charts unchallenged since its debut. It had a near-perfect mix of comedy, action, and horror as well as chemistry between likeable stars, an engaging high concept and iconic imagery, characters, and gadgets. It's simultaneously a successful Buddy Movie, Sci-Fi Movie, and Comedy Movie. One of the only other films that it could be compared to really in tone and genre is Ghostbusters (1984).

So where did this franchise go? After a great animated series that captured the weirdness while adding layers to a sleek and complex universe and then a truly terrible film sequel, there hasn't been much else to it. Will Smith has been one of the last great movie stars, from Independence Day (1996) all the way up to Hancock (2008). He hasn't done shit since Hancock, though, and MIB3 is more than a test of his Box Office Power than the test of any Star's Box Office Power. Johnny Depp already shit the bed this summer with the failure of Dark Shadows (2012). Outside of those two the list of A-Listers who can guarantee a big opening is getting slim.

Steer here with your asshole...
So what are MIB3's chances of echoing the cultural force of the first installment? About the same as Tommy Lee Jones actually turning into Josh Brolin. The schtick here is adding time travel to get Will Smith back to the 60s and a Brolin playing Lee's Agent K to perfection. Beyond that and shots of what appears to be The Entity, there isn't a whole lot more buzz here. For all his blockbuster prowess, Will Smith actually generally doesn't do that many sequels and for good reason. His films are usually far more successful as stand-alone pieces. There's not much more to go in the story beyond the end of I, Robot (2004) or I Am Legend (2007) beyond the absolute ridiculous. Men in Black was actually the one movie universe that could actually work episodically, as it's essentially a procedural. A pretty weird procedural to be sure, but one nonetheless.

What the hell
But there was no desire for this. No one cares about MiB anymore. I feel like every Blockbuster this summer will be measured against The Avengers (2012). That is, can any film do both the business The Avengers has done and be as marketable, palatable, and enjoyable. Besides a bizarre re-teaming of the two leads of No Country for Old Men (2007) playing Agent K, there's nothing here that screams must-see. It's a desperate cash-cow rather than an organic convalescence. Not that any Blockbuster is an organic convalescence, but there are certainly more appropriate and interesting places to revive a decades-old franchise than sending Will Smith back in time to apparently save Tommy Lee Jones and also prevent an invasion by giant Jellyfish.

Still, this is the kind of smartass character Will Smith played early in his career before he became really brooding in I, Robot, I Am Legend, and Hancock. It's a welcome return because it's what he did so well in Independence Day, the earlier MiBs and Bad Boys, and of course Wild Wild West (1999). Now that I've been able to mention every huge Will Smith action movie ever I can say that MIB3 may be forever known as the first of these that didn't do spectacular business in the past decade. I actually think The Avengers is still sucking up quite a bit of the market.

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